Fiction Reviews

The Lonely Lands

(2023) Ramsey Campbell, Flame Tree Press, £20 / Can$34.95 / US$26.95, hrdbk, 246pp, ISBN 978-1-787-58863-9


A work of melancholy horror and grief that is rather beautiful as well as haunting on multiple levels. What carries this is the characters seem remarkably credible and real World, so the reader really feels and relates to their pain.

Taking place largely in Campbell’s native Liverpool, the story is set at the height of the 2020 lockdown caused by the ravages of the CoVID-19 virus.

The main protagonist, Joe and his partner, Olivia, have a late in life but idealized romantic marriage, selling antiques and antiquarian books together. Their cosy lives are shattered when they witness a robbery in progress in a florists neighbouring on their own shop. When Olivia pursues the thief she runs through an anti-vaxxing protest march, and when she gets close enough to the burglar, he deliberately coughs in her face.

She succumbs to CoVID, and the all to real horror of Joe’s separation from his wife as she succumbs and dies in hospital isolation is heartbreaking reading, more so undoubtedly to anyone who faced such agonising helplessness with isolated and often ultimately lost loved ones in real life.

Joe has faced the death of a loved one before. His athletic, and afterlife obsessed grandfather, who gave him little but negative criticism in life has drilled into him the importance of avoiding grief or thoughts of bringing loved ones back, as it could potentially prevent them from moving on and enjoying any kind of Heaven.

Unfortunately the very warnings not to reach out and stay in touch with the departed drive Joe to try contacting Olivia. He seems to achieve it, often talking with her, and finally making journeys into her heaven-realm, which resembles a coastal holiday resort and hotel she enjoyed visiting during her time alive with him.

While she seems real, others in the surreal other place seem cold, mechanical, and some struggle to maintain human form. Worse, his deceased grand-parents tend to turn up and interfere with his visiting times and his grandfather also pursues him back to our realm. Soon, Joe seems to struggle to tell one realm from the other and descends to the brink of madness.

What is astonishing is how grim and horrific mundane things are made to appear in our world. Visitors to the shop begin to treat Joe insensitively and horribly as he struggles to explain his quirky behaviour and need to go somewhere else (to somewhere he can reconnect with Olivia).

The thief who may or may not have caused Olivia’s death is at risk of getting off with causing her death as the trial approaches, and Olivia‘s surviving parents hijack Joe’s plans for creating a public bench with a commemorative plaque dedicated to Olivia. The grandfather’s spirit seems to spill into our world, pursuing Joe relentlessly through a multi-storey car park.

Joe becomes intensely saddened and disenchanted that he cannot be with Olivia, in our world or in her heaven and how sees how empty his life is in ours.

This is not really a horror story as much as a deep and all too real dive into relentless grief and loss. Horror normally just causes thrills and shivers. This is one that will move the reader to tears and for many there will be connections to all too real memories and experiences in our own lives too. It’s not just the ghosts in this one that will haunt you. It makes for exceptional reading.

Arthur Chappel

See also Ian's take on The Lonely Lands.


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